A Real Downside to Virtual Relationships

Online communities are harmless...until they become a replacement for actual life.

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It could be said the website Second Life is a harmless way for people to live out their fantasies in a virtual community. It could also be said that Second Life and other virtual worlds where real people spend voluminous amounts of time pretending to be something they're not are sad commentaries on the state of American culture.

Second Life is not the first nor is it the only such website.

Habbo comes to mind with its Habbowood (a virtual Hollywood), as do SimCity, Cyworld, vSide, Friendster, hi5, and then of course the better-known Facebook and MySpace. These online communities function as part social networking sites (meet markets), part time-wasters, and part game sites with a titillating dollop of sex sometimes thrown in to lure traffic.

As occasional entertainment and escape from the vagaries of real life, perhaps they are harmless. As a replacement for real life interactions they are something else.

On Second Life, people form virtual friendships and marriages, buy virtual clothes and real estate, and do just about everything they can do in the real world. The technology might be new, but the concept is not. Second Life, and other sites like it, are preceded in the annals of media history by a time-sucking, ultimately unproductive way for people to wile away hours that could be better spent: commercial television. Living by proxy, be it virtual or televised, is not something completely new. The interactivity of virtual networking has only become widely available during the past 10 years or so, while television has been with us for some seven decades. The question for the moment is, have we allowed it to go too far?

I say to the denizens of these virtual worlds: Why not spend the same time and energy improving actual lives, meeting real people in real situations and building real businesses? Why not follow the example of the creator of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, who founded the firm responsible for creating the website, Linden Labs?

I wish it were true that no harm has come of these virtual interactions. The popularity of virtual social networking has mushroomed; some sites boast close to 10 milion members. But the real losses created by virtual play are just beginning to mount. The Wall Street Journal reports that family law experts and marriage counselors are seeing greater numbers of real marriages dissolve over virtual relationships. Perhaps we should rethink addiction to the virtual world as a substitute for real life. This is yet another case where technology has jumped decades ahead of the ethics needed to guide it.